All posts by Bernard Gowers

Fat cats and liberals

Why am I so troubled by this report about how much the directors of the biggest companies in the UK are being paid?

Two disturbing figures:

1. Directors pay in the biggest firms has gone up by 102.2% since 2000 while the average pay of their employees has risen 28.6%.

2. Half of FTSE350 directors earn more than £1million.

Do I have any liberal reason to be upset by this? Or should I just accept that my objection to greed on this scale is simply aesthetic, on a par with my dislike of, say, polystyrene, or certain shades of purple, so I’ve got no reason to advocate political action against it?

Two fairly sound liberal principles are that power should be dispersed, and it should be accountable.

There isn’t a simple equation of money = power, but wealth is certainly one of the forms that power can take. The financial power of individuals is always fairly unaccountable, for good reasons. But individuals or families with millions of pounds to invest inevitably wield considerable power over others, whatever they choose to do with their money. This is the case whether they exercise it directly (eg by owning a single firm), or indirectly (by spreading investments across the world).

I’ve not suddenly decided that we need a command economy, simply transferring power from businessmen to bureaucrats.

But my point here is that this concern about the rich getting richer shouldn’t be mistaken for a dowdy form of socialism. It’s not about class or envy or standardization for its own sake. (And its not just about poverty, either. In global terms most of the people employed by one of these companies continuously since 2000 are probably not destitute, even if their employment is not very life-affirming).

This is about power. That’s what makes it a liberal issue. I might almost say something to shout about.


British Muslim leaders are meeting with Ruth Kelly to talk about combating ‘extremism’ in sections of their community.

This is the Ruth Kelly who attends Opu Dei meetings, although refuses to confirm or deny that she is a member of this highly conservative Catholic group.

The same Opus Dei that provided spiritual comfort to Spanish fascism and South American military regimes, that continues to harbour homophobia and misogyny, some of whose members engage in ritualised self-harm, and whose attitude towards contraception condemns countless people to AIDS and other sexually transmitted conditions. This isn’t sub-Da Vinci Code hysteria. As far as I’m concerned, contemporary Catholicism has many enormously positive strands, that value human dignity and take meaningful action to improve the world in a specifically Catholic manner. Its not possible to envisage European intellectual and cultural life without a massive Catholic contribution. And most of the faults of Opus Dei are not exclusive to Catholic groups, but are also found in some other Christian denominations.

Yet it sticks in my throat that Muslims should feel that they have to demonstrate their ‘anti-extremist’ credentials to New Labour in general, and to Ruth Kelly in particular.

Not the leadership election

Dragging my gaze for a moment away from the leadership campaign, an ICM poll in today’s Grauniad has the
Lib Dems back up to 21%, the same level as before this little episode began, with the Tories on 37% and Labour on 34%. Together with the Dunfermline result, this is a good reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in a largely media/Westminster village-driven concern with leadership and careers. (Not to say that I don’t think it would be a very good thing of Chris Huhne wins, of course, Richard…) I think this may have something to do with the Lib Dem vote becoming more solid, perhaps even more inspired by liberal issues. Perhaps we should just abandon having a single leader, and have a panel instead?

Reasons to be Cheerful no.63

A brief footnote to James’s eloquence on the Dunfermline & West Fife result.
1) Its a good reminder of the self-absorbed uselessness of the Westminster-media bubble: according to the headlines in the last month or two, the Lib Dems should have done badly, and the Tories at least done something.
2) Its difficult to know if this was a worse result for Labour or the SNP. The Nats came 2nd here in 2001, and must have aimed to get that position back at the by-election. If they can’t move forward in a by-election now, then when can they? This result is strong further support for the Lib Dems being the second party in Scotland, after coming second in seats and votes in the 2005 General Election, but in that case how should we be positioned for the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections?

There you are, bringing class into it again

Reflecting Britain is a certainly Good Thing, but it makes me wonder how the Lib Dems can encourage more people who aren’t… how can I put this… middle class, to get involved.

Of course, the advantages of being middle class are not only (or even mainly) financial, but relate to an amorphous system of cultural capital, social networks, aspirations etc, that can’t be deal with in the same way as relatively less complex identities like gender or ethnicity. So I don’t think that Reflecting Britain should just extend its remit, in any case its BME work is likely to have a positive ‘class’ side effect.

But this is something worth thinking about.

In a recent mailing to federal conference reps, the guidance on submitting a motion suggested asking a ‘teacher, journalist or civil servant’ in the local party to draft it. On that basis, none of the 12 working-class Liberal MPs in 1885 would have been asked…

(Note from James: this is the first of, hopefully, many posts from fellow member of the Liberati Bernard Gowers. Be gentle with him :)).